Dangerous, impoverished, run-down, full of promise, on the rise, urban. Dilapidated houses, broken windows, colorful stained glass. These words and phrases seem to contradict one another yet they are all words used to describe the Merrill Park neighborhood of Milwaukee located on the city’s west side, just north of the Menomonee Valley.
Walking through the neighborhood the differences are evident. Down one block there are two houses that are boarded up, one with green board that looks bright despite the emptiness inside. Down another block there is a storefront on the corner, where foot traffic abounds, yet the shop has been boarded up and no signs adorn it anymore. There are homes with inviting, well trimmed lawns leading to beautiful porches, yet a few houses away there are overgrown trees and tall grass all but obscuring the front of a dark house.
“Not all the houses around here are great but I think there are nice people around here,” said Leticia Evans who lives nearby. “It may not look the best but it’s not some dump place.”
In this neighborhood full of contradictions are two different schools. Marquette University High School is a Jesuit Catholic High School located at 35th and Wisconsin. St. Rose and St. Leo is a Catholic grade school located at 31st Street and Michigan. Both are Catholic schools in the Merrill Park neighborhood. However, Marquette University High School does not appear to fit in with the rest of the neighborhood.
The schools work together on the neighborhood, and together with each other. Murphy Sinsky is a senior at MUHS.
“I did like working there [at St. Rose and St. Leo], I do remember having a day in which I worked with 6 kids, which was quite a hectic day. I also remember working with one kid in a quiet corner of the room, and we were so involved in the book I didn’t notice my class had left 15 minutes beforehand.”
MUHS has been described as a piece of the suburbs in the middle of this very urban area.
St. Rose and St. Leo seems to fit in better than the grand buildings and more wealthy student population of MUHS. St. Rose and St. Leo is much smaller and even the darker brick fits the colors of many of the houses around it, unlike MUHS’s bright exterior. While St. Rose and St. Leo’s students are not all from the Merrill Park neighborhood most are from poor urban areas.
“The only difference that I see in Marquette High and St. Rose and St. Leo is the economic difference that most of their families make compared to what majority of our families make,” said Antwan Warren, Dean of Students at St. Rose and St. Leo.
Poverty and Crime in Milwaukee
Milwaukee is a city with a history of crime and poverty. The city has been consistently ranked as one of the most segregated cities in the nation. In the many urban areas of the city poverty and crime are rampant.
“The Merrill Park Neighborhood does face crime issues, but not unlike most neighborhoods with anchor businesses/organizations in the area,” said Officer Derrick Lemmie, Community Liaison Officer of the Milwaukee Police department’s District Three.
According to the Census from 2006-2010 26.3% of people in the city of Milwaukee were below the poverty line. The Milwaukee Social Development Commission said that this makes Milwaukee 11th in the nation in terms of poverty for cities with at least 250,00 residents.
The median household income in the city of Milwaukee is $35,921 dollars a year, compared to the rest of the state, which has a median household income of $51,598.
The Social Development Commission (SDC) estimated in 2008 that 31.9% of people under the age of 18 live in poverty.
In terms of crime Milwaukee has always been known as a dangerous city, especially the inner city and urban areas. However crime in the city has gone slightly down of late. According to the Milwaukee Police Department violent crime in the society has gone down 23% since 2007.
However, Milwaukee has seen an increase in robbery and theft in the past few years. Robbery went up 8% from 2010-2011.
While the city’s violent crime numbers have gone down, the crimes that are most likely to affect the citizens of the Merrill Park neighborhood are those robberies and burglaries.
The Milwaukee COMPASS community-mapping site shows that most of the crimes in the neighborhood are not murders as the area saw only one homicide in 2011. There were a high number of assaults, most of which were concentrated on Wisconsin Avenue. Many of the crimes were robbery, theft, vehicle theft, or crimes against property.
“Speculators have bought these properties and housed anyone without regard to their character and as a result, we have experienced an increase in burglary, auto theft, and robberies,” said Bob Greene Merrill Park Neighborhood Association Director. Greene has seen his neighborhood improve over the 56 years. Greene has lived in the neighborhood. He believes that the neighborhood is on the upswing.
“We have been very successful in improving the area,” said Greene.
Greene said that the neighborhood association measures its success on owner occupancy rate, crime rate and average home values.
The crime rate went down by 50% and property values have gone up by over 300% since 2006 according to Greene.
“I think it’s a good neighborhood, I don’t know why everyone thinks its bad. I really like it around here, its not really dangerous as long as you’re not stupid,” said Evans.
However, the economic downturn may have hurt the neighborhood recently.
MUHS principal Jeff Monday graduated from MUHS in 1984. He said the neighborhood is doing much better than it was when he attended school.
“My impression is that the neighborhood is much more stable in recent years and has more owner occupied homes,” said Monday, “It seems to be a safer neighborhood than it was even 5 years ago. While I was in high school in the early 80’s my perception was that it was a typical urban neighborhood with a few problems.”
Warren from St. Rose and St. Leo said that the staff knows that there are issues with the area.
“The staff understands that the neighborhood is in a poverty-stricken area and understands the difficulties and obstacles that may come when dealing with the neighborhood or students,” said Warren, “The difference with me is that I grew up in poverty and in a poverty-stricken area, so what many may view as terrible or ghetto, I look at it as a neighborhood or people going through hard times and haven’t reached out for resources or developed the skills on how to get out of it.”
The area was developed in 1870 and most of the homes were built between 1870 and 1910. Many people originally began working down in the valley, but when businesses began to leave the valley the neighborhood suffered.
MUHS and the Neighborhood
MUHS moved into the Merrill Park neighborhood around that same time. In 1922 the school moved to its current location at 35th and Wisconsin. The school is a Jesuit Catholic all-male institution with a tuition that rivals some colleges. A main idea of a Jesuit institution is to be part of an urban environment and to help out the community, being what the school calls “men for others.”
From the fenced in parking lot to the pristine exterior, it is evident that this realm of education is wealthy. A few short years ago the school completed a major overhaul of its Michigan Avenue side complete with many more parking spaces, new offices and a new chapel. The stained glass-fronted “Three Holy Companions” chapel rivals most churches, and it is used mostly for school masses.
Students who attend the school come predominantly from suburbs and more wealthy areas of the city; their suburban lifestyles seem to clash with the urban setting of their high school.
“The neighborhood I live in is a wealthy family oriented group of friends, from all ages,” said Murphy Sinsky. “The MUHS neighborhood is a family oriented area, but the obvious poverty creates an unsafe neighborhood.”
However, the school does quite a bit to integrate itself into the community. MUHS helps with neighborhood functions, often holding these functions in the school itself. The students do projects in the community and even tutor at St. Rose and St. Leo.
“In some ways MUHS serves as an anchor for the neighborhood,” said Monday.
“Yeah I think they do a lot of good work around here, they help out people,” said Leticia Evans.
Greene agrees that having MUHS in the neighborhood is good.
“Over the years the school and neighborhood has developed housing for owner-occupants, helped elderly with weatherization using student volunteers and neighborhood residents, cleanups, an annual neighborhood rummage, neighborhood scholarships for boys who could not otherwise afford Marquette high and many other things that have helped to improve the community overall,” said Greene.
Will Sinsky graduated from MUHS in 2008. Currently he has two brothers at MUHS.
He said that while he knew the area was no idyllic suburb, he never felt that it was dangerous. “I think I knew that it was in that area. And I knew that area wasn’t the best place to be,” Will said. However he said, “ there was never any danger feeling.”
Joseph Cavanaugh teaches English at MUHS. He graduated from the school in 1995 and lived in the neighborhood briefly. MUHS sponsors an Alumni Service Corps (ASC) where former students come to the school and teach, and are given lodging in the area around the school while the start their first year of teaching. Cavanaugh lived in the neighborhood as part of ASC.
“I never felt threatened or in danger,” said Cavanaugh.
Cavanaugh said that while the area is different from what most students experience in their home lives, that it is not a dangerous place. He believes the neighborhood is relatively safe compared to the rest of the urban areas of Milwaukee.
That does not mean that the area is without danger, however.
“My wife lived across the street from St. Rose while she was in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and there was a shooting on her front yard one night that left the whole house of volunteers feeling uneasy about their safety for the rest of the year,” said Cavanaugh.
There were also known crimes when Will Sinsky attended MUHS. He said most occurred at a nearby bus stop on Wisconsin Avenue.
“Our students have to learn to be smart about things like car break-ins, like not leaving their i-Pads on the front seat,” said Cavanaugh, “but some of this awareness is good for a teenager who may come from a household that hardly locks the doors at night.”
St. Rose and St. Leo and the Neighborhood
St. Rose and St. Leo is run by Messmer Schools and is part of the Milwaukee Archdiocese. St. Rose and St. Leo is located next to the St. Rose Parish. The school was originally taken over by Messmer at the request of the Archdiocese in 2007, which combined the schools St. Rose and St. Leo into one school at St. Rose. St. Rose and St. Leo is a much less grand school than MUHS. It does not have any large expansions or high wrought iron fences.
The school brings its students through the neighborhood to see what it is like. Around 400 students attend St. Rose and St. Leo, but only around 50 of those students are actually from the neighborhood.
The school was originally St. Rose, like the parish. However St. Leo was integrated recently, moving from 23rd and Locust. Many of the families followed to the newly combined school.
The school starts by working right in its own backyard with its namesake parish St. Rose of Lima. The school’s students do work at St. Rose to help keep the parish going and to help those who attend many of whom are impoverished.
Warren said that the parish uses the school building as well. “They use our building at least twice a month to host neighborhood families who take part in the food pantry program,” said Warren.
“We also have students throughout the school year, who want to earn extra incentives, which we call “A Chance to be Great Cards,” help pick up trash and recyclables around the neighborhood as well as several classes helping during Earth Day,” he said.
According to Warren the soccer team plays at Merrill Park. The coaches walk the team over to the park so the students can see the neighborhood. The school also uses the park for its “Field Day” activities, a fun-filled day at the end of the school year.
However, the administration is aware that the area can be dangerous. Kevin Hughes is an administrator at St. Rose and St. Leo.
“I see the neighborhood as not ideal for students,” said Hughes. “There are many negative influences on the streets around us that could lure our students away from getting their education. In terms of safety, I feel that our students and employees are safe. However, our cars have been broken into repeatedly during the day and many cases of vandalism have taken place to our vehicles. The school has remained safe though.”
Whether it is MUHS students doing service to the community or St. Rose and St. Leo students helping to pick up the garbage and litter that they see near their school, everyone has pitched in to make the Merrill Park Neighborhood better.
The schools make sure to help one another too. St. Rose and St. Leo need help with tutoring for students, or just a little bit of an activity for some rambunctious youngsters, and MUHS needs to show their students how to help those in the neighborhood.
“I am so glad that Marquette High added the new additions to their facility because it brings more life to the neighborhood,” said Warren. “What is also great about Marquette High and their students is the great partnership that we have with them.”
“I am very awestruck at the power of St. Rose, because for those that have been around the neighborhood around MUHS for as long as I have, you would know that while there is always hope, there is a lot of dilapidation in the housing but also the feel of the neighborhood. St. Rose is a symbol of a promise of a different life for the kids that live around MUHS, and new opportunity,” said Murphy Sinsky.